New chapter for Museum of Technology

Ruthie Collins gets the lowdown on a relaunch for Cambridge's riverside museum  

“Your mission is to hunt the ghosts of the house and to free them,” Matthew Taylor, creative director of Othersyde, tells us, face half in shadow, in the top room of the recently restored old Engineer’s House at the Museum of Technology. ‘Escape The Haunted House’ is a new escape game coming to the Engineer’s House this spring, comprising three rooms of mystery, fun and puzzles to solve, drawing on much of the Museum’s fascinating history. “The ghosts are all troubled: your job is to find out what is troubling them, so they can be freed. Once you’ve solved the three rooms, you’ll be able to play the whole house at midnight.” If successful, you can even escape the house on a mysterious boat down the River Cam.

The games will be part of a series of major developments to the Museum of Technology, supported by £1.6 million of National Lottery heritage funding, plus support from other grant providers, including Historic England. The developments relaunch the Museum of Technology as a multipurpose venue for the city, while maintaining the site as a centre for industrial heritage with a new exhibition space, meeting room space and an on-site café and tea room, serving from 9am until 5pm.

It’s difficult to imagine Cambridge in the 19th century, when the streets were filthy, there was no clear sewage system and outbreaks of disease were frequent. The Pumping Station was built as a solution, in 1894, to deal with problems of waste. It burnt the town’s rubbish in furnaces called destructors, which heated water in boilers to make steam that powered engines to pump the city’s sewage to Milton. The station was at the cutting edge of technology – the Engineer’s House was the first house in the city to be powered by electricity. 

The Museum relaunches with a major opening exhibition this April, which will stay on as a permanent feature for the public to visit. With improved disabled access, the Museum’s developments build on its historic building and magnificent working engines, promising atmospheric lighting, sounds and audiovisual displays. There will also be dressing up and hands-on fun for younger visitors, with the escape games offering a great interactive experience for people of all ages, and specially designed sessions for school children. “The games offer a great chance to educate children on the history of the Museum,” Matthew says.

"It will help us to transform ourselves"

The drive to improve the Museum of Technology and its Engineer’s House has been led by a team of dedicated volunteers and is a real success story. “We’ve been restoring the House since June 2018,” says Cambridge artist Katy Bailey, trustee at the Museum of Technology, whose great grandfather was engineer at the Engineer’s House from
1902-1936. “People don’t want to see it being turned into flats. They want it to be a success.” 

Othersyde, at the Engineer’s House, turns from café by day into a bar by night, with an open call for ideas from the community. So far the venue has seen poetry readings and film screenings, and there are plans for board game nights, wine tasting and so much more. Plus there will be a theatre in the garden available for performances and music, too.    

“We are proud of the amazing commitment of our volunteers who have allowed the Museum to grow steadily for almost 50 years. We are excited about this project as it will help us to transform ourselves through greater involvement with our local communities and make us ready for the next 50 years!” says Pam Halls, curator at the Museum of Technology.

The Museum’s much-loved steam days will return in spring, partly thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign to repair the boiler, plus Steampunk in Cambridge will appear at the Museum in May, too. ‘The Floating Museum’ will also be restarting in the spring, offering cruises on the Cam in historic Camboats as well.  

“For centuries the River Cam was a bustling trade route serving Cambridge’s industries.  The City’s coat of arms even includes ships and mythical sea creatures. The businesses which grew up along the river banks are remembered in the Museum’s new displays and are included in our outreach tours,” comments Pam.

This will make a fantastic day (or night) out for people of all ages. “It is so exciting to see this project coming to fruition after years of hard work,” says Pam. “We can’t wait to welcome visitors to our transformed site to explore the industrial heritage of Cambridge.”